Protecting financial consumers and ensuring fair deals

Published July 23, 2021, 12:21 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The rapid acceleration of digital transactions brought on by the pandemic underlines the need for greater consumer protection.  Presently, Republic Act 7394 or the Consumer Act of the Philippines, provides the legal basis for consumer protection and establishes standards of conduct for business and industry.  But this law was enacted in 1991 — or three decades ago — and long before the onset of digital banking and financial transactions.

Since March 2020, a big chunk of Filipinos’ day-to-day needs are provided via personalized delivery, thanks to the availability of online transaction and payment channels. More focused and tougher measures are needed to ensure adequate protection to consumers.

The House of Representative passed on third reading in June 2020 a proposed Financial Products and Services Consumer Protection Act. This bill is now awaiting Senate approval, pending endorsement by the Senate committee on banks, financial institutions and currencies chaired by Senator Grace Poe.

Some 16 business and financial groups are pressing for the immediate enactment of the new law.  They have flagged new risks to consumers who have become more susceptible to fraud in financial services accessed through digital channels.

Clearly, the era of caveat emptor (‘let the customer beware’) is over. Products and services must be delivered with transparency, full disclosure of terms and conditions, and respecting the customers’ privacy rights.

Customer-centric financial products and services are envisioned in the proposed law.  This covers the conceptualization, design and actual delivery of financial products and services, as well as the mediation of relationships between financial institutions and clients.

The proposed law, among other things, will vest financial regulators with powers to determine the reasonableness of interest rates, fees and charges on financial products or services; issue cease and desist orders; and suspend operations of financial service providers in relation to a particular financial product or service.

Expediting the resolution of consumers’ monetary claims is a vital feature. In the past, complaining customers found themselves mired in long-drawn proceedings.   The new law seeks to assist them in recovering their losses more speedily.

The Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) observed that the proposed law would achieve twin objectives: cushioning the harsh impact of the economic hardship arising from the pandemic while strengthening the country’s financial ecosystem.

The Senate has a narrow window within which to pass this urgent measure.  After Congress reopens on July 26 to hear the President’s final State of the Nation Address (SONA), there will only be around four months of sessions before the start of the campaign period for the 2022 elections.  Within this limited time frame, the people have every right to expect that a new Financial Consumer Protection Act would be enacted and signed into law.

Meantime, the public deserves to be accorded due respect by banks, financial institutions and commercial enterprises in terms of ensuring that their products and services are truly beneficial, value-laden and worth the customers’ patronage.